“O Canada! Our home and native land! True patriot love in all of us command…” Okay, while Lesley and I are not Canadians in a formal (citizenship) sense, nor do we reside in the Great North, it’s hard to deny that we are pseudo-Canadians at heart. I mean, prior to the arrival of the global pandemic in early 2020, we traveled so many times to Ontario that I’m sure the customs and border officials recognized us before we even had our passports ready for inspection. For those of you that know us personally, you know too that we not only love our northern neighbors, but we love and miss their amazing music scene. With 27 uninterrupted months of no international travel, we finally snapped this embarrassing streak this past weekend, venturing across the border for a weekend of great music in Hamilton, ON.
I won’t bore you with the number of stop-start moments that we’d spent contemplating taking the plunge and heading north for a visit (concert announcements are like alarm bells), but with the loosening of restrictions at the border, we remained optimistic for an early Spring excursion. All it would take was the notification of an upcoming concert in Hamilton for that final push – one that had us quickly securing tickets and circling the calendar, before counting down the days to that much needed getaway to the Steel Town – the bustling hub of music and arts in the southwest corner of Lake Ontario. And just last Saturday evening, we arrived at The Mule Spinner, one of our favorite music venues located within an old cotton factory in the industrial north-end of the city, for an evening of great music – connecting with old friends, and making the acquaintance of many new ones too.
The concept of the “Steel Town Round” was envisioned by local Hamilton country-folk artist Matt Paxton, who saw the potential for an acoustic-based singer-songwriter circle as the perfect first post-pandemic show at The Mule Spinner, limiting the number of tickets to keep this an intimate (and not-to-be-missed) gathering of some of the finest country musicians from around The Hammer. As both curator and participant, Matt was happy to announce the five friends (four acts) accompanying him on this given night, sharing too that this would be an in-the-round format – the stools for the musicians set up facing each other at the center of the room. We learned that each act would perform three all-acoustic tunes in turn, followed by two more after an intermission (we sadly had to leave during the intermission, feeling the effects of a long day – although we enjoyed a solid 90 minutes of outstanding music and banter from each of the artists, and will focus on the three tracks heard).
“I’ve got Heather Valley here. We’re gonna be passing it to the left doing one song at a time, kinda Bluebird Nashville style, or Elvis ’68, whatever you prefer,” he stated. “We’ve got my old pal Ben Somer, and he’s been here since grade six playing Green Day and Nirvana, [but] you’re not gonna hear any of those tunes tonight. We have Chelsea McWilliams and Tim Allard of The Redhill Valleys, who are gonna be playing together, recent winners of the American Songwriter contest.” Having kept an ace up his sleeve during the planning stages, Matt was only too happy to play his winning hand when formally announcing the event, revealing that a highly revered Orillia, ON-based musician would be rounding out this incredible line-up. “And then, not from the Steel Town, but he’s a member for sure,” he added, building up the anticipation, “He’s not even from Ontario, but he lives in Ontario, [he’s] all the way from Saskatchewan, Zachary Lucky.”
As host, Matt Paxton would take the lead-off duties, commencing with “When You Get Back From Portland,” an original track from his 2016 “Let Me Rock N’ Roll Tonight” album (produced by Aaron Goldstein). “I wrote this in Victoria, BC at the Royal Empress hotel’s bar, after they kicked me off the piano that was in there,” he joked. “I don’t play piano, so I thought it was a good deal.” When handed the baton for his second turn, Matt continued to impress, offering a tale about once playing at a bar in Montreal, and being asked to stop singing so that the crowd could watch the figure skating, before being asked to continue and have people mostly talk over his set. He went on to perform “Til The Day I Die” (we shared the recent music video just last week on our social media pages), and with his third time under the spotlight, honored the music of Woody Guthrie with his unique interpretation of “Danville Girl,” as found on “Train Tracks,” his recent album of old songs about trains.
When first laying my eyes on the concert lineup, Heather Valley was the one name with which I had no familiarity. This was very quickly rectified, as I streamed her recent “Wildflower Radio” album and was overwhelmed by her unique alt-country-noir interpretations of popular tunes, covered in her own imitable style. And while Heather focused on her own compositions on this given evening, I insist you spend some time with that album too – and take delight in her reimagined versions of tunes from the likes of Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell, and even The Tragically Hip.
Heather used her segments to share a narrative about losing everything (mentally and physically) following an ill-fated romance with a con man, and how turning to music and finding a community of like-minded friends in Hamilton helped return her from the brink of despair. Prior to sharing “Lovejoy” from her 2019 “Desert Massage” album, Heather referenced her first Hamilton Supercrawl festival performance that same year, and followed with a tale of a random stranger trying to strike up a conversation with her while music was playing through her earbuds. “There’s a girl who played Supercrawl last year and I think you’d like her,” Heather recalled him telling her. “He was trying to introduce me to me.” With her final offering, “Second Chance,” Heather shared how the song was inspired by how things changed in her life when moving beyond that disastrous relationship. “The message, really, is you can get a second chance,” she offered. “But it doesn’t mean that everything is going to work out. You still have to try really hard.”
A true veteran of the Hamilton independent music scene, and with a well-earned reputation as a bona-fide songwriter, a live encounter with Ben Somer had mysteriously eluded us, until now. Blessed or cursed (your choice) with a quiet demeanor and non-commanding stage presence, Ben possesses that rare quality of being able to earn your undivided attention simply by strumming his first note and/or singing his first line – a natural ability to “shine a light on the harder humanities without losing sight of our hopefulness” (Bandcamp bio).
Opting to open with “Let Me Down Easy,” Ben was quick to address the room with a dilemma he had faced when adding this track to his set list. “I was debating whether or not to play this particular song because there is a swear in it, and in my wisdom, I was like ‘that’s a catchy part of the song – let’s make it the chorus so it has several swears, plural, repeated’,” he joked. “Which is fine, but I’m just apologizing to you guys in advance.” Ben would also add an up-tempo, comic-reference filled song about hockey (“It started a long time ago / The day she fell in love / It was Hockey Night in Canada / He bought home the cup”), and wrapped up with a new, unreleased composition titled “The Night I Crossed The Yellow Line.”
Chelsea McWilliams and Tim Allard did not need an introduction, but the crowd were very keen to welcome this half of the local emerging alt-country band The Redhill Valleys to The Mule Spinner. The duo received enough recognition that I believe the ‘emerging’ tag should be dropped right now – as The Redhill Valleys continue to receive national airplay and strengthen their support and fan-base across North America and beyond. It was enjoyable to see Chelsea seated with an acoustic six-string guitar (typically plays bass guitar in full-band guise), and she was eager to share a tale about the origins of the band and her and Tim’s songwriting, notably their first offering, “Take A Lot Of Pain.” “We’ve both written individually and then when the band started,” she stated. “We tried really hard to get a collection of songs going, which most bands try to do, [and] this first song … I kinda started when I was living at my parents house. In the kitchen, strumming along, I came up with a bit of a concept for this song, and there is a theme with our songs and it’s mostly to do with drinking.” “Drama, and all break up songs,” Tim added, “And then like drinking, because you broke up with somebody.”
With Matt planting the seeds earlier in the evening, Chelsea and Tim naturally shared their experience of co-writing their first 2022 hit single, “Anymore.” “Writing was the only good thing that came out of a two year pandemic,” Chelsea recalled. “We wrote this song over the ‘Pannie’ – that sounds so cute. As Matt mentioned, we submitted this song to ‘American Songwriter,’ and we won.” As an early contender for my personal 2022 favorite single honors, it was not only wonderful to experience this one in the kind of setting it is best suited for, but was equally sweet to see Tim rocking the sweet Gibson J45 guitar that they received as part of their winning prize package. The duo would round out their performance with their latest single, “Travel Well” – the title track from their upcoming EP, and one in which Tim takes the lead vocals.
“Hey Hamilton, how you doing? It’s sure nice to be here tonight,” stated Zachary Lucky prior to his first number. “And as Matt said, I’m not from Ontario, so take what you can get. Tonight, I’m Hamilton’s adopted son, thanks for having me.” We last caught up with Zachary (a good friend of GDW) back in the summer of 2019, and knew first-hand just how easily he can handle a room. With a thunderous response from the room, the Saskatchewan native took his cue, and dug deep into his 2013 “The Ballad Of Losing You” album to deliver “Ramblin’ Man’s Lament.,” and would ultimately close out his set with “Sell All You Have,” another SK-themed composition taken from his 2016 “Everywhere A Man Can Be” album.
It would be the focus on his second track, “Sunday Morning at the Dragstrip,” as found on his 2019 “Midwestern” album that gave Zachary a moment to reminisce on time spent with his parents growing up on the prairies. “My mother, she always tried real hard to make us a church-going family when I was a kid, but I tell you what, I wasn’t into it,” he recalled. “Come Sunday mornings in the summertime, my old man, he’d wake me up extra early, pack a cooler full of … ice teas, and he’d drag me out to Saskatchewan International Raceway south of Saskatoon on Highway 11, to the drag strip, and we’d spend our Sunday mornings out there … and it was a helluva lot better than going to church.” Following the rousing rendition of this popular tune, Zachary would add that “even those places that aren’t church can even feel a little like church sometimes.”
A solid 90 minutes of entertainment, banter, and song made for a perfect return to our live music adventures in the land from where such artists and music originate. I’m sure that the music-starved crowd at The Mule Spinner enjoyed a solid second set, and we look forward to hopefully seeing the post-production footage captured professionally on film by Nathan McCrory (Steady Canoe) to enjoy this evening once more in the comfort of our home. Congratulations to Matt Paxton and his ensemble for putting this show together, and welcoming live music back to The Mule Spinner in great fashion. What a great debut for The Steel Town Round – a fabulous songwriter circle that has the potential to make for a wonderful recurring event. I must confess, if we see another Steel Town Round flyer pop up in our feed, it will be hard to stay away.
I would like to take time to thank local legend and venue host Glen Marshall, who welcomed us back to The Mule Spinner (a former diesel mechanic shop) with open arms, and found us a great vantage point to capture our own footage from this show (coming soon to our YouTube page). Thanks also to Matt Paxton, Chelsea McWilliams, and Tim Allard for taking the time to chat and their tremendous hospitality. And of course, thanks to Zachary Lucky – not only a good friend, but a man with a great memory, as he instantly recalled when and where we last crossed paths with no prompts or hints needed. As we edge ever closer to the light at the end of this pandemic-filled tunnel, Team GDW know for sure that our next journey to Southern Ontario will not take another 27 months – heck, after this experience, 27 days seems like a stretch now.